Adapted from a speech given at the BYU Symposium on Life, the Universe, and Everything
The Book of Mormon is the most important book in my life. I remember it as one of the earliest things I read, starting with Emma Mar Peterson’s children’s adaptation. The illustrations in that book still linger in my mind as what black and white illustrations should look like. Soon I graduated to The Book of Mormon itself. I’ve read it many, many times.
It shows up in my style. Anybody who wonders why practically every sentence begins with “and,” “then,” “but” — you just have to think of the phrase “And it came to pass,” and you will understand where that comes from. You see, if a sentence is important and true, I instinctively feel that it must begin with a conjunction.
But the influence is much deeper than style. It was the Book of Mormon that brought me to BYU as a student. My high school grades were such that I could have taken my pick of schools, but I applied only here, because I intended to become an archaeologist and work on understanding the Book of Mormon. I saw no point in going to any school that did not take the Book of Mormon seriously as an ancient document referring to real-world events.
Later, when I had abandoned the study of archaeology, mostly because I had found out that it was hard work, the Book of Mormon still kept changing my life. I was a theatre student at BYU when I attended a play adaptation of some events in the Book of Mormon. I sat there thinking, “Oh. Oh, she missed the point, she didn’t see what’s really important in the story.” That impelled me to write my own treatment of that same story, which became one of my first produced plays, The Apostate, directed by Charles Whitman in the Arena Theatre at BYU. It was that play which launched me on my career as a writer.
For the rest of my time at BYU, half my writing consisted of adapting other Book of Mormon stories into plays. Years after I graduated, I worked on the first six animated adaptations of the Book of Mormon for Living Scriptures. A few years ago, I was called upon by the Brethren to rewrite the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They told me to ignore the existing script, and instead to go back to the Book of Mormon and find a way to shape a clear and coherent story that would present the book’s most important themes for an audience of nonmembers. I’ve been exploring, analyzing, dramatizing this book for a long time.
So, it seemed to me only natural that I should write my Homecoming series — The Memory of Earth, The Call of Earth, The Ships of Earth. These books are really just another dramatization of the Book of Mormon, only transformed into a science fictional setting, where by fictionalizing it I have the freedom to explore questions of character and society in a way that I couldn’t in a more direct adaptation.
Elements of the Book of Mormon have shown up in many of my other works. The massacre at Tippy-canoe in Red Prophet, for instance, clearly is taken from the Book of Mormon. Sometimes my debt to the Book of Mormon is unconscious. Not until Professor Michael Collings pointed it out did I realize that in my first novel, Hot Sleep, the naive narrators in the middle of the book were clearly reminiscent of the narrators in the books taken from the small plates of Nephi.
In short, I have explored the Book of Mormon again and again, going back to that deep well to draw water. No matter how much I take from it, the well is still full.
*What Is This Book?
The Book of Mormon has its own account of how we got it. Most of us here are familiar with that account. Joseph Smith told us how he got the book. You know the story. An angel appeared in his bedroom three times in one night. Later on, while he was climbing over a fence, it appeared to him again. A most insistent angel.
Following the angel’s directions, Joseph Smith went to a nearby hill where he found buried in it an artifact of an ancient civilization — golden plates with words written on them in a language he did not understand.
After four years of annual visits to that hill, Joseph Smith took the golden plates into his possession and proceeded to translate them with divine aid, dictating the words of the book to a scribe. We have witnesses of that process, the testimony of people who participated in the translation. Three witnesses were shown the plates by the angel and testified to its divine origin. Another eight witnesses handled the plates and swore that they were physically real.
At the end of the prophet’s translation, he returned the plates to the Angel Moroni. Therefore, they are not to be seen among us now.
Either Joseph Smith’s account is true, or it isn’t. Either the witnesses who said they saw the plates lied, or they didn’t.
If the account he gave us is true, then the Book of Mormon must be what it purports to be, which is the record of an ancient people written by an ancient author, and Joseph Smith’s role in providing us with the Book of Mormon was solely as translator. Therefore, we should find his influence in the book, or the influence of any other 1820s American, only where we would expect to find a translator’s influence: that is, in matters of word choice, consciously or unconsciously linking Book of Mormon events to experiences that he and his American readers could understand, choosing the clearest language he had available to him, fitting ideas he found in the book into existing American concepts as best he could..
Or he did not get the Book of Mormon the way he said, in which case somebody in the 1820s in the United States made it up, and in that case it is fiction, and we should find Joseph Smith’s or someone else’s influence there as author. In that case all of the ideas and events in the book should come out of the mind of an 1820s American, and it should reflect faithfully the kind of thing an 1820s American would do in trying to create a record which he was going to pass off as an ancient document.
Scripture … Now, if the Book of Mormon is scripture, who wrote it? The first part of it is written by a man named Nephi, probably writing as an older man looking back on his life, explaining to his own people why and how they were chosen by God. It would have been written in the context of many wars against his brothers’ people, and therefore would include a great deal of justification of his own people’s rightness versus their enemies’ wrongness. It would not be an impartial history by any means, or even an impartial autobiography. It’s highly selective: It states clearly that it is designed to show how God worked with him and his family. It includes transcriptions of his favorite scriptures and commentary on the ideas that matter most to him. He has a very specific audience with clear recorded purposes in mind.
The next author is Jacob, his younger brother, who has no memory of Jerusalem, and, therefore, less contact with the culture of that city. He’s a vigorous disciple of his older brother, he’s writing to the people of his own time, and he’s also aware of the scriptures’ importance to the people of the future.
Then Enos, Jacob’s son, gives his personal testimony, but he’s not taking that same role as a teacher or leader in his culture. Then we have a group of authors writing with increasing brevity, sometimes as little as a verse: Jarom, Omni, and others following after. They are minor, weak, and dwindling. They amount to virtually nothing, until the last one writes only to justify turning his particular records over to the king, who is the suitable person, in his mind, to receive ancient records.
Which, by the way, is something that would certainly not be a cultural idea available to Joseph Smith. You don’t turn ancient records over to kings in the world of the 1820s in America. Kings would have nothing to do with ancient records. You would turn ancient records over to a scholar. We know that that was Joseph Smith’s personal attitude because when he wanted to find support for his translation in order to encourage Martin Harris’s continuing support, he sent Harris, not to a king or a president or a political leader, but to a scholar.
The next author we meet is Mormon, the dominant author of the text of the Book of Mormon. He’s a man who was a general since his youth, a leader of armies, a man of war, and a man of God. We should expect to see reflections of that in the text. He is watching his people collapse and decay, and no doubt wondering about the mechanisms that cause nations to collapse and decay. For much of his life he is forbidden to preach to his own people, though he longs to do so. Instead he devotes his time to collecting and abridging ancient writings, but the resulting writings will probably reflect his desire to preach. He is a man who claims to have seen our own time in vision and knows that he is writing directly to us, unlike Nephi.
From the Words of Mormon through to Mormon’s own book, he abridged old historical records, prophecies, biographies, speeches written by other people. You will find then in his text both abridgements and summaries of other people’s writings, and therefore we should find traces of their attitudes and feelings in the book. In addition, we will find the voices of those whose works he includes whole, or at least the voices of those who purport to have written down what they said. We’ll find his priorities and interests reflected in his selection of things he has included.
Then we meet Mormon’s son Moroni as an author. He writes relatively little, but he is a prophet and military leader in his own right. He had helped in his father’s work and in fact completed Mormon’s eponymous book. We may also have encountered his voice here and there earlier in the text without knowing it. He continued writing in solitude after his father’s death. The book ends with his testimony, which looks almost entirely to our time, and he is the one who, resurrected, returned to lead Joseph Smith to the plates.
We also have another important author, Ether, but we only have his writings as abridged by Moroni, and his writings are also an abridgement and a summary of earlier records from a culture completely unrelated to the cultural traditions from which the rest of the Book of Mormon arose. We should find traces of that earlier culture, though it should be triple-filtered through the perceptions and concerns of the abridgers, Ether and Moroni, and the translator, Joseph Smith.
We’re talking about a seriously complex artifact here.
If the Book of Mormon is scripture, then these are the authors of the book.
… Or Hoax. If the Book of Mormon is literature, then some American in the 1820s, most probably Joseph Smith, actually set out to fake a document that would fool us into thinking that all these other guys wrote it, reflecting the concerns of at least three different cultures, none of them particularly similar to the culture of frontier America in its fifth decade.
Now the project of faking up the Book of Mormon is what I’m going to talk about here, because it’s very much like what we science fiction writers do. Most of the time, though, we don’t pretend to be creating a document from another culture. Instead, American science fiction writers make it very plain that we are 20th-century Americans writing to 20th-century Americans. Nevertheless, occasionally a science fiction writer or a fantasy writer does write a document that in itself purports to be from another culture. And whether the text pretends to have been written from within another culture or not, most science fiction presents cultures that no one has ever seen, histories that no one else can verify. We write about made-up lands and made-up cultures. If the Book of Mormon were fiction, Joseph Smith or someone else must have done the same — made up a culture that no one else has ever seen.
Writing something that purports to be an artifact of another culture is the most complicated, difficult kind of science fiction, because not only is it about strange things, it must also in itself be a strange thing. And when you have not one, but several different narrators with different rhetorical stances, it becomes even more difficult. There are different perspectives, different personalities, and the culture must change across time, so that writers from the culture early on must somehow have differences from writers in that culture later on.
So we’re talking about a very tough project, one which is rarely attempted and which is almost never attempted under circumstances where you actually try to pass it off as a genuine document. Even those of us who write science fiction publish it with the word “fiction” somewhere on the cover. Our name is on it as author, and we expect to get credit for our inventiveness. We don’t try to say we found it.
There is a historical precedent, however. An ancient Scottish poet named Ossian was “discovered” by a man named James McPherson, who supposedly translated this work of ancient Celtic poetry which he found. In his own time, his work was taken very seriously as an ancient text. It was an era when people loved the idea of finding ancient manuscripts, especially manuscripts native to the British isles. When they praised the poems, they praised Ossian, not McPherson. It was in an era when new work was not respected as much as old work, so if you could find a way to put out new work as old work, you’d get much more favorable attention for it. McPherson was not a particularly good poet — but Ossian supposedly came from a more primitive time, and therefore his poetry was remarkably sophisticated for the time it was supposedly written.
McPherson produced exactly what people of his time expected or desired ancient Celtic poetry to be. But it also happened to be deeply, hopelessly wrong. It took only a little while before the fraud was exposed. Though most critics accepted Ossian, Samuel Johnson accused McPherson of forgery during his lifetime; McPherson never did refute that charge or provide the originals. Yet he remained a Member of Parliament until his death in 1796. Today, of course, the press would have seized upon Johnson’s charges and hounded him to an early grave. It was a more courteous age.
Today, though, when you look at the works of Ossian you can clearly see that this is the work of an 18th-century British writer. It has nothing to do with what you’d expect to find from an ancient Scottish writer. It’s an obvious hoax, good enough only to fool people in a fundamentally ignorant time.
Joseph Smith’s project, if it was a fraud, was far more ambitious than McPherson’s; a much longer, more extensive work, with multiple authors. We’re talking about somebody jumping off a cliff here, folks. His work should proclaim itself to be a phony on every page today. This is because every storyteller, no matter how careful he is, will inadvertently confess his own character and the society he lives in. He can make every conscious effort, he can be the best educated scholar you could possibly find, but if he tries to write something that is not of his own culture he will give himself away with every unconscious choice he makes. Yet he’ll never know he’s doing it because it won’t occur to him that it could be any other way.
Even the best science fiction writers make this mistake all the time, but we forgive it because we don’t expect any better. They’re not really pretending to be translating a genuine document of another culture. They’re looking for readers, not believers.
You can spot, immediately, the decade in which almost any science fiction story was written. Any one of you here could do it. The conventions of language alone, will give it away. The style of writing that was prevalent in the 1950s is completely different from what you expect in the post-60s world of science fiction. Anybody who is writing after William Gibson will have been bent by Neuromancer. We’ll see the influences of each era, because the accepted mode of storytelling has changed.
Furthermore, we find preoccupations with contemporary issues. Science fiction of the 1950s invariably has some element that refers to the fear of Communism or Nazism. In the 1960s and 70s we find lots of references to rebellious counter-culture groups, libertarianism starts popping up seriously, and we find a lot of drug culture stories, reflecting concerns and values that were virtually unknown earlier.
The level of knowledge of science will also change across time in science fiction. Nobody’s writing stories about breathing the atmosphere of Venus anymore.
Most important are the cultural assumptions. Let’s step outside science fiction for a moment. How many of you have seen old episodes of I Love Lucy? The relationship between a husband and wife in that show, between males and females in general, is deeply offensive, to me at least. Actually, it was deeply offensive to me even in the fifties. I never liked Lucy as a child because I thought she was an idiot, and I really never liked her husband because I thought he treated her like a jerk — but I had a different standard of what a husband and wife should be than the rest of American culture, apparently, because I never saw the series criticized on those grounds at the time.
Nevertheless, even as recently as Bewitched we find ludicrous remnants of a pre-feminist culture, and yet the writers writing in that time had no concept that they were giving away the fact that they were writing in the 50s. They would never have dreamed that they had better change the way they treat women in their fiction in order to make sure that people from the 70s still could understand their work and its context. It didn’t cross their minds because it didn’t occur to them that the relationship between men and women could possibly be any other way.
The same thing is clear in fiction from the 1930s and 1940s, wherever the writers depict the relationship between blacks and whites in America. Even people who would have thought themselves very liberal, open-minded, tolerant, non-racist people, nevertheless put blacks in a social role with attitudes that would be unthinkable in fiction today. You know when you’re reading something from the 30s and 40s because of the perfectly blithe and innocent way in which these writers keep blacks “in their place.” At the time, it didn’t cross their minds that there could ever be a time when white people would actually seriously think of black people being their intellectual and social equals. And as for blacks and whites marrying each other and remaining acceptable to other people — that was unthinkable, even among the most liberal.
Even now, today, we have assumptions that we do not think to question. Assumptions about property ownership, for example, which are really not that widespread through time — but our fiction invariably assumes that people own the things they own and will continue to own them for quite some time. We even have the ludicrous assumption that after we’re dead we still have the right to control the disposition of our property, and pass it along to our heirs. What a silly notion, really — but it’s not questioned in our fiction. (Of course, now that I’ve questioned it, you’ll be aware of it — but even at this moment some of you are incapable of understanding how property could be handled any other way; you are so deeply involved in American culture of the 1990s you can’t even comprehend the Doctrine and Covenants.)
We make other assumptions. For instance, we assume that someone’s job is somehow tied to his identity. Who are you? I’m an engineer. What is he? He’s a doctor. In many other cultures it would be unthinkable to answer these questions in terms of career. The answers would refer to family, tribe, city, or caste. What would your occupation have to do with anything? But stories produced by contemporary Americans don’t question the assumption that career is the most important distinguishing feature of character.
We make assumptions about education, about what formal education means, about how necessary it is, about what it’s for, about who should get it. We make assumptions about family relationships and how important a particular family relationship will be in our lives. In America today, very little fiction actually includes family members outside the immediate family in any kind of important role. A cousin? Why in the world would cousins come up in the story? And if a grandparent is living in the same house with the main character, it is regarded as unusual; it is commented upon.
Most contemporary fiction writers don’t even have questions about the fundamental morality of our culture, even though it has changed drastically in many ways over the past thirty years. We take a lot of things for granted that are not necessarily taken for granted in other cultures. How much fiction have you read lately in which the author does not assume that two people who are mutually attracted will sleep together at the earliest opportunity? And if they don’t sleep together, it is only because of loyalty to an existing relationship, never because of any moral barrier to unmarried sexual congress.
The Book of Mormon, if it is a science fiction work, if it is an artifact of the 1820s, should be thick with similar cultural clues. 1820s America should leap out of every page, exactly the way 1950s America leaps out of every minute of every episode of I Love Lucy.
At the language and word-choice level, of course, the Book of Mormon, as a translated document, should be pure Joseph Smith. It should reflect what a man of his level of education in 1820s America thinks scripture should sound like. And of course we have exactly the ersatz King James version voice that the Prophet knew the translation would have to have if it were to be taken as scripture by the people he was going to offer it to. Fake or genuine, the Book of Mormon would need that. And, fake or genuine, the Prophet’s attempt at old-fashioned formal English should reveal his lack of education — which it does, with numerous grammatical errors and misuses of archaic forms, many of which survive even in current editions of the Book of Mormon.
But it’s no surprise that the translator repeatedly errs, because this is not his natural speaking voice. No one speaks this kind of language around him. He doesn’t understand the grammar, and so grammatical errors are thick on the ground. Those who believe, like David Whitmer, that the translation appeared word for word on the Urim and Thummum, are ripe for disillusionment — or else they are accusing God of some really embarrassing grammatical errors. This is ultimately why David Whitmer ended up outside the Church — he refused to accept the idea that Joseph Smith could edit revelations previously given, precisely because Whitmer believed God gave them to him word for word. But Whitmer’s view of translation was wrong. However the process of inspiration worked, it could only produce language that already existed in Joseph Smith’s mind. Whether the Book of Mormon is a fraud or a genuine translated book, it will reflect Joseph Smith’s language.
So the words are definitely used as 1820s Americans would understand them, or misunderstand them, especially an 1820s American of Joseph Smith’s educational level. To a degree they even reflect some of his personal style — but not entirely. As with any translation, there should be word patterns, word orders, idiomatic expressions in the original language that survive translation, that bend the translator’s language into new forms and directions. So in the Book of Mormon we should expect to find foreign and alien word patterns along with Joseph Smith’s effort to sound scriptural. Much better scholars than I have already explored exactly these elements in Joseph Smith’s translation, and I have no intention of trying to move into an area so far from my own expertise. (As a science fiction writer, when I do this sort of thing I fake it mercilessly. I make no effort beyond the most cursory to try to make my narrators speak differently from myself.)
There are many areas apart from language, however, where only a science fiction writer or a very perceptive science fiction reader is likely to know how very difficult it is — impossible, really — to tell a story without confessing the author’s own culture.
*American Culture and the Book of Mormon
If the Book of Mormon is a fake, what should we expect an 1820s American to put into this book?
Lost Tribes. One thing we should definitely expect is exactly what most people who haven’t read it assume the Book of Mormon is. They assume that it’s a book about the Ten Lost Tribes, because that’s what Joseph Smith’s culture would definitely have produced. It was in the air. Speculation about the Indians being descended from the lost tribes of Israel was common. Why wouldn’t Joseph Smith have followed that line of speculation? It’s hard to imagine why an 1820s American would come up with some ludicrous story about someone escaping from Judah in 600 B.C. It has nothing to do with anything that matters in American religious culture of the time, while the Ten Lost Tribes were an obsessive topic at the time. Yet it isn’t a book about the Ten Lost Tribes. And here’s the kicker. If Joseph Smith had been deliberately flouting expectations, he would have made a point within the text about how this is not a story of the lost tribes. Yet, contrary to all expectations, the lost tribes are barely hinted at; they have almost nothing to do with the story, negatively or positively.
Women. Another thing we should definitely expect in an 1820s book is a love interest. This is no joke. Biography and history always focused on love interests in that era. Even the Bible has plenty of love interest stories — Ruth and Boaz, Joseph and Mary, Moses and Miriam, Abram and Sarai, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba — in Joseph Smith’s era, all these stories were interpreted with powerful emphasis on romantic love. Women occupied a very important role in the stories being told in America in the 1820s. No contemporary feminist would approve of the role women played — but they were there, and they mattered. All heroic deeds were done for women, to obtain the love of a good woman. We have the troubadours to thank for that. The romantic tradition was very much alive in Joseph Smith’s time.
Unfortunately women are virtually absent from the Book of Mormon. When they do manage to show up, they are rarely named. There are only three women who are actually of the culture of the Book of Mormon who are given names. One is Sariah, the mother of Nephi. Another is a harlot named Isabel, and the third is a servant woman named Abish.
None of the queens who show up in the story are mentioned by name. None of these writers ever mentions his own wife, and when women do show up in a specific role they’re still almost never named. Nephi did not even bother to mention the name of the woman who saved his life by pleading for him in the desert. (A lot of people leap to the conclusion that this must have been the woman who ended up marrying Nephi. My own feeling is that Laman would hardly have listened to the pleading of Nephi’s wife-to-be. It seems far more likely to me that the woman who pleaded for him was Laman’s intended. The very fact that Nephi didn’t name her supports this, I think, because, while he had to include this woman in his story, he couldn’t very well point out that it was the woman who ended up marrying Laman. Laman is the king of the bad guys when Nephi is writing his account, and his wife is presumably queen. Nephi didn’t spend much time in his account giving credit to his enemies for their virtuous actions. Of course, none of this is proof — but it’s at least an intriguing possibility.)
The way women are treated in the Book of Mormon is not even remotely the way women were regarded and treated in the 1820s in the United States. If you doubt that, you have only to look at the way that Mormon women were treated in the history written by B. H. Roberts, or the Documentary History, which is more a product of that time.
It is telling, perhaps, that the only Book of Mormon culture in which mothers play an important role is not the culture of the writers of the book — not Nephite culture. Rather when two thousand young soldiers give credit to their mothers for having taught them courage and righteousness, they are products of Lamanite culture. And, again, it is within Lamanite culture where the queen of the Lamanites plays an important role in the conversion of her people, and where a servant named Abish saves the lives of the Lamanite king and queen who lie in a trance, overwhelmed by the Spirit. Remove these Lamanite cultural expressions from the story, and you find the Book of Mormon quite startling in its omission of women from the events of Nephite history. This is quite foreign to attitudes in Joseph Smith’s culture. And while the Book of Mormon attitude toward women is perfectly acceptable in many other cultures in world history, they are not cultures the Prophet would have known of.
Awareness of the Audience. But the most telling confessions are little, tiny, unnoticeable choices, because that’s where even the most brilliant fakers would give themselves away. He will make his invented culture different from the culture he lives in — but it will only be different where he has thought of it. The Book of Mormon should be an American story only where the author of the hoax thought of making the culture different. Every element of More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is presented in light of English culture of the author’s time. Wherever the foreign land has not been made deliberately different from England, it is the same; and where it is different, the difference is clearly pointed out and commented upon. Of course, since these works are written from the point of view of a character in the story who is a contemporary Englishman, the narrative should point up the differences. But there should be far more differences in the first place; it is absurd how English these foreign lands turn out to be.
The author of an invented culture is going to be proud of his creation. It is almost impossible not to flaunt one’s most fascinating ideas, to make them important plot points so that the audience can’t possibly miss them. Unfortunately, if the Book of Mormon is a hoax, the author is astonishingly humble. The very cleverest cultural differences are not pointed up; on the contrary, they are often concealed so that most readers are completely unaware of them, and even cite them as examples of similarities to 1820s American culture.
Even the humblest and most self-effacing of authors, however, are incapable of completely forgetting the contemporary audience. Even when the narrator is supposedly a member of the strange culture, the author will still throw in those little explanations that will be necessary for a contemporary audience to understand the culture which he’s presenting. Since the author has invented the strange culture, he is keenly aware of all of the differences, all the things that will be hard for his readers to understand. He will make sure that the cultural context is explained. He may be very clever about it, but the explanation will be there.
But if it’s a genuine document, those differences will be almost invisible, because the writer won’t think that it could possibly be any other way and, therefore, it won’t occur to him that it needs any explanation. I Love Lucy episodes never stopped to explain, “By the way, the husband is the head of the home and has the authority to tell his wife what to do, just as if she were a child.” They assume that the audience will know that. They assume that the audience doesn’t need a defense of Ricky’s spanking Lucy. “By the way, this isn’t wife abuse.” The need for such an explanation doesn’t occur to them.
However, the Book of Mormon is a complicated document. Mormon is abridging documents that come from many generations before him. Just as there are cultural differences between 1950 and 1990, there will be times when Mormon, writing in the later fourth century, is aware of cultural changes since the time of Alma, for instance, four centuries before. So there will be times when he explains culture. However, even though he has seen our time in vision, he has not lived in it, and by and large he will explain those cultural differences, not to us, but rather in terms that would clarify them to people of his own time. And while Mormon will probably explain things that seem strange to him from the earlier documents that he’s abridging, it won’t occur to him to explain things that seem still perfectly normal to him.
Judges. So — does the author of the Book of Mormon explain things that an American audience of the 1820s would need to have explained, and in terms they would understand? Hardly. Let’s look at just some of the most obvious things, some of the places where people think Joseph Smith blew it. For example, when Mosiah gives up his throne, the reign of the judges begins, and the judges are chosen “by the voice of the people.” This is automatically taken by the critics of the Book of Mormon as proof that Joseph Smith, living in a democracy, had to show American democracy as the ideal government.
Think again. The resemblance between the reign of the judges and American democracy are superficial at best. Mormon, living in a time when judges apparently do not rule, explains what his culture would need to have explained — but does not comment at all upon the very significant ways that the judges differ from American democracy. The judges may be in some sense chosen by the will of the people, but look at how it actually works. In Joseph Smith’s time there was much talk about the constitutional division of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers. But in the Book of Mormon, the judge not only judges people, but also enforces the law and directs the gathering of taxes and supplies and sending them in support of the armies. Not your normal, traditional role. He enforces traditional law, but when new laws are needed, the judge makes them! Where in American life of his time would Joseph Smith have seen this?
How are these judges selected? We hear of almost no contested elections. On the contrary, judges seem to nominate their successors. With few exceptions, the judge serves until death, and is usually succeeded by a son or brother, or by a member of a family that has previously held the judgeship. Now, except for the Adamses, there were no dynasties in Joseph Smith’s America.
The judges actually function as elected kings. The old pattern of government still endured, they just had a different method of choosing the guy in charge. Mormon pointed out the difference, which meant he stressed the election of the judges by the voice of the people, never questioning that authority should stay in only a few aristocratic families and that judges should have monarchical powers. Far from being a mistake in the Book of Mormon, this is one of the places where the Book of Mormon makes it clear that it does not come from 1820s American culture. Even the best of hoaxers would have made the judges far more American.
Lineage. Furthermore, when we do find social classes in the Book of Mormon, political divisions, they seem to reflect alien to anything Joseph Smith was familiar with. To Joseph Smith, social classes were based entirely on money, which was displayed in the form of property. Where money is the basis of social distinction in the Book of Mormon, it is never associated with land, but rather with fine clothing. This is entirely consistent with Meso-America, but hardly a pattern Joseph Smith would have known.
When social conflict comes in the Book of Mormon, it seems to follow lineage rather than economic distinctions. A common pattern in the Caribbean basin was for an invading tribe to establish themselves as a permanent ruling class over the indigenous tribe, as the Taino of Haiti did. This seems to be the hidden pattern within the Book of Mormon culture. The Nephites seem to have been a ruling class superimposed on the underlying Mulekite population of Zarahemla, and as their influence spread, they continued this pattern of bringing indigenous people under the rule of a Nephite aristocracy. The Zoramites seem to have done the same, so that the division between the Zoramites and the poor is very clearly drawn. The poor are ruled by the Zoramites, but they are not Zoramites themselves.
In Ammonihah, Amulek asserts that he is a descendant of Nephi. This seems to be important, though it would hardly be so if everyone was descended from Nephi. But perhaps the distinction is clearest in the struggle between Kingmen and Freemen. This is thought by many of Joseph Smith’s critics to be based on the American Revolution, but if anything it is the opposite — an effort on the part of an old aristocracy to reassert its primacy over the new judges. The America that Joseph Smith knew had no hereditary class that large numbers of people thought had the right to rule. Even in England, a culture the Prophet was probably marginally familiar with, no group of nobles could possibly have assembled a popular army that would seek to bring back kingly rather than parliamentary rule. But Zarahemla had a clan, a lineage, that could command enormous popular support — the old ruling family of the Mulekites. The Nephite kings had abandoned their right to rule, and had turned over the government to elected judges. But the indigenous people of Zarahemla would remember that they had once had kings of their own, before these strangers came from the land of Nephi. And they knew who the king should be. So even though the Book of Mormon calls it a war between Kingmen and Freemen — which is how it would certainly appear to those on the side of the Freemen, as the writers of the Book of Mormon accounts certainly were — it might have seemed to the Kingmen themselves to be a struggle between the ancient native tradition and the ruling class, which had surrendered its legitimacy by giving up the throne. After all, the Nephite kings had only ruled for three generations in Zarahemla.
This view makes the Book of Mormon story much clearer and seems to fit the cultural patterns in the book. On the other hand, the American Revolution provides no useful analogy and doesn’t fit the facts in the book. Yet if the Book of Mormon were a hoax, this alien social pattern would surely have been pointed out and clarified so that the 1820s American reader couldn’t possibly miss it. Instead, it is simply taken for granted by the author, so that it can easily be overlooked by the reader who isn’t looking for alien social patterns. Neither Mormon nor the writers whose works he abridged would even think to explain the relationships among tribes and lineages, because to them those things were obvious. For an analogy, you might look at the mysteries of Tony Hillerman. His stories are set on the Navaho reservation of Arizona and New Mexico, yet he feels no need to stop and explain to the American reader that the Navahos were once an independent nation, which was confined to a reservation by the U.S. government. He certainly does not go through the whole history of the relationship between native Americans and the European invaders. Likewise, how many essays and articles are written about poverty in American cities today without bothering to go through the whole history of slavery, emancipation, segregation, the African-American migration to the cities of the North, and the struggle for civil rights?
In a longer history of America, of course, these themes would be dealt with, precisely because they have changed over time. In fact, because of the rapidity of change in our culture, we have a tendency to explain a lot more than historians from earlier eras. Even so, how many histories of important events in American history do you think could be written without a single mention of drive-in movies, microwave ovens, and handheld calculators? We ignore what we take for granted, just as the writers of the Book of Mormon did. When, after the birth of Christ, the Nephite society broke down completely, people immediately lapsed into tribal organizations — Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and so on. But in all the years since the Nephites first organized themselves as a nation, we have had not a single mention of those tribes other than the ruling Nephites themselves. We might have thought that all the people were Nephites. And yet those tribal organizations persisted throughout the entire six hundred years of Nephite society and were available to provide a skeletal social organization when the rule of law broke down. So the hoaxer who was writing the Book of Mormon was so brilliant that he not only maintained this shadow organization of society until it was needed in the plot just before King Jacob, but also deliberately did not mention it, in keeping with the way history would be written by someone within that culture.
Speculation on Zarahemla. Let me offer an aside on the matter of Zarahemla and the Mulekites. Much has been made of the statement by King Zarahemla that his people were descended from the youngest son of King Zedekiah. Extraordinary and completely unconvincing efforts have been made to find such a son, overlooked by the Babylonian captors of Jerusalem; just as much effort has been devoted to explaining how a good Jaredite name like Mulek could show up in the family of an Israelite king. But is this really necessary?
In Meso-American culture, every ruling class had to assert an ancient ancestor who was a god or, at the very least, a king in an admired culture. Whoever ruled in the Valley of Mexico always had to claim to be descended from or heirs of the Toltecs. Rival Mayan cities would play at ancestral one-upmanship. Imagine, now, the vigorous and dangerous Nephites, coming down the valley of the Sidon River from the highlands of Guatemala. King Zarahemla is negotiating with King Mosiah. Mosiah tells him of his ancestry, of course, and the story of how God led Lehi and Nephi out of Jerusalem at the time when Zedekiah was king of Israel.
To Mosiah, what he is doing is bearing his testimony and asserting the divine guidance that he receives as the legitimate king of a chosen people. To Zarahemla, what he is doing is claiming that his lineage gives him the right to rule over the people of Zarahemla and displace him from the kingship. So what does Zarahemla do? Well, Mosiah admits that his ancestors were not kings in Israel. So Zarahemla picks his most noble ancestor, Mulek, and then declares him to be the son of that last king of Israel. Thus if anybody has the right to rule over anybody, it’s Zarahemla who has the right to rule over Mosiah and his people. But Mosiah kindly points out that if Zarahemla and his people are descended from Israelites, they certainly seem to have forgotten the language and writing, and therefore have obviously degenerated from the high culture of Israel. The Nephites, on the other hand, have preserved a writing system that no one else uses, and which Zarahemla can’t read. They have a history accounting for every year since they arrived in America, which Zarahemla of course cannot produce.
In the end, whatever negotiation there was ended up with Zarahemla bowing out of the kingship and his people becoming subject to rule by the Nephites. But the story of Mulek served a very useful purpose even so — it allowed the people to merge, not with the hostility of conquerors over the conquered, though in fact that is what the relationship fundamentally was, but rather with the idea of brotherhood. They were all Israelites. Thus no one had any reason to question the Mulek story, because, while it failed in its original purpose, to allow Zarahemla to prevail over Mosiah, it still served the valuable function of uniting the newly combined nation as a single tribe. It wasn’t completely successful, of course, or there wouldn’t have been a later revolt of Kingmen against Nephite Freemen, but considering that the people of Zarahemla outnumbered the people of Mosiah by quite a bit, the Mulek story may well have contributed to the ultimate victory of the judges in that struggle.
If this speculation is true, it does not imply that the Book of Mormon is somehow false. No one in the Book of Mormon ever claims that the story of Mulek came to anybody by inspiration. The source is never more than Zarahemla’s assertion during his negotiations with Mosiah. That Mormon and other writers believed the story does not prove it true or false, it simply proves that it was part of the Nephite culture. And if my speculation is right, and Mulek was no more a son of Zedekiah than I am, we are spared the confusion of trying to reconcile this account with the utter lack of convincing evidence that Zedekiah had a boy named Mulek who escaped the Babylonians without generating a vast amount of Jewish tradition looking for the return of the lost son of the last king of Judah. We don’t have to account for a migration to America led by the Lord but without the same kind of preparation and commandments given to Lehi and Nephi. We don’t have to account for the fact that we think of America as being the inheritance of Manasseh and Ephraim, while in fact two thirds of the Nephites would have been descended from Judah — which to my mind, at least, would make hash of the literality of the application of the parable of the stick of Joseph and the stick of Judah to the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
But this is only speculation, and if I’m wrong, and there really was a Mulek led to America by the Lord, I’m not going to lose my testimony about it! I just think it’s something to think about, a possibility to consider.
Instant Cities. Joseph Smith lived in a place where new settlements had sprung up in the wilderness, and he was quite familiar with what it took. Americans of his time and place new perfectly well the difference between a settlement, a village, a town, and a city. They knew from hard experience exactly what it took to get from wilderness to city — how many years, how many settlers.
So why is it that when Captain Moroni is trying to secure the Nephite borders, he founds cities left and right? Cities that are instantly fortified and populated, seemingly without any kind of migration of settlers from the heartland of the Nephites? Joseph Smith knew the word fort, and new perfectly well that a military commander trying to secure hostile country would not found cities — he would build forts and leave garrisons in them.
But in Meso-American culture, particularly in the jungles where the Mayans built their cities, there were always small villages and settlements in the wilderness, families on their own, and an ambitious king looking to expand could very easily move into a new territory, gather together a lot of isolated and vulnerable settlers, and unite them into a city. No settlers were needed from outside. The people were already there. They simply gathered together to create public works — temples, in Mayan times, but in Moroni’s case, fortifications for defense. The cities didn’t require large garrisons, since the newly gathered people became citizen soldiers. And many people would gladly accept the overlordship of the people who gathered them and made a city out of them. It gave them greater safety, a sense of identity, and bonds with a great nation and desirable culture, not to mention a powerful religion.
Nobody in 1820s America knew anything about this. Yet Captain Moroni goes through the wilderness building cities exactly as Mayans could and did. And the author of the Book of Mormon didn’t even make a big deal about it — just took it for granted as being the way the world worked. Of course you can build instant cities in the wilderness, without bringing in outside settlers. So it seemed to Mormon. But could it possibly have seemed that way to Joseph Smith?
Lawyers. The appearance of lawyers in the Book of Mormon is assumed by many to be proof that this is an American artifact. After all, Joseph Smith and his family had plenty of reason to have a low opinion of lawyers, and the references to lawyers in the Book of Mormon are hardly flattering.
But there is nothing uniquely American about lawyers. The Romans had lawyers, too, and that the Roman pattern of lawyers was a lot more like what the Book of Mormon used than any American lawyers that Joseph Smith was acquainted with. That is, a lawyer like Zeezrom seemed to be effective, not because of more skillful manipulation of law, but because of his persuasiveness and personal influence. He would take someone under his protection and speak as personal advocate. With Zeezrom on your side, you would win, not because he understood the law, but because of his rhetoric and his reputation for power. Furthermore, the prosecution of Alma and Amulek seemed to originate with the lawyers themselves as the complainants, while Alma and Amulek had no defense attorney, but rather spoke for themselves. It doesn’t follow the American pattern.
Naming. In fact, the only thing that makes Zeezrom and his ilk seem American is the fact that Joseph Smith translated the Nephite word for the role they played in Nephite society as the English word lawyer. And this is exactly right. If Joseph Smith was receiving the pure knowledge of what Mormon meant as they wrote, he would still have to put it down in English. In a few rare cases, the idea he was trying to translate had no English equivalent, and so we find cureloms and cumoms. But most of the time, there was some English word that came to Joseph Smith, a word that was close enough to convey the idea. As with all translation, though, the words are never exact and never can be. It is the most correct translation possible, but a perfect translation is not possible. So for Joseph Smith to apply the word lawyer to an advocate in a legal system that was not very close to the American legal system can be misleading, but it is still the most correct possible translation given the language that the Prophet had available to him at the time.
In fact, the very lack of exotic names supports the genuineness of Joseph Smith’s translation. Science fiction writers and critics are quite aware of a long tradition of what James Blish called “shmeerps.” Blish pointed out how silly it was that most science fiction writers, when trying to show an alien fauna, would produce a creature that looked like a rabbit and acted like a rabbit and was treated like a rabbit, and yet it was called a “shmeerp.” This is ludicrous, of course. People migrating to a new land with strange plants and animals will use familiar names for the new creatures. Thus the English immigrants to America called the bison “buffaloes” and referred to maize as “Indian corn” and finally just “corn,” even though in England that word had been a generic term for grain. The English felt no need to come up with new names for items that were “close enough.”
Surely the Nephites followed the same pattern, using old words for new objects. Thus, if in fact there were no horses in America at the time of the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew word for horse could still quite readily be applied to some other animal that functioned like a horse. Furthermore, the language Mormon wrote in may well have been an ideographic language, in which case it would hardly matter what the spoken word for a particular animal was, as long as Nephite writers had agreed to use the old “horse” ideograph to refer to that animal. Thus it is no more surprising that the word “horse” appears in the Book of Mormon than that the word “buffalo” was used in a nation where there were no buffaloes, but only bison.
The funny thing, though, is that most science fiction writers still get it wrong, still come up with dozens of needless and often unpronounceable alien or “modern-sounding” names for commonplace objects. We’ve had computers for two generations now, and no one has yet felt a need to call them “puters,” for instance — and yet I still find brand new science fiction novels that feel the need to come up with a stupid futuristic name for computers. When a science fiction writer wants to show a futuristic book, which is read digitally, he’ll often come up with some fancy new name for it. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that futuristic books will be called — get this — “books.” After all, when we wanted a name for the thing we drive around in, we called it a “car,” even though automobiles were quite different from railroad cars. The word automobile also survived, of course, because English is a language that loves redundancy. But think of how often you talk about getting the kids into the auto. The common word is the word that already existed, and which was simply applied to the new thing. And we Americans are a people accustomed to new word coinages and technical innovations that demand new language. Most cultures are not so open to new language, and most languages are not so open to borrowing and coinages. They tend to apply old language to new situations.
We science fiction writers have generations of experience to guide us, and we still can’t get it right. The author of the Book of Mormon, if it’s a hoax, managed to get it right — even in cases where getting it right looks wrong to most people, who haven’t thought it through. This is an important point. The natural tendency with storytellers who are trying to create an alien culture is to come up with all kinds of new words to show how strange this culture really is — but the author of the Book of Mormon didn’t follow this almost universal pattern. Instead, he did something so sophisticated that even those who do this sort of thing for a living still don’t usually get it right.
Of course, it can be argued that the hoaxer who was making up the Book of Mormon was so naive that it didn’t occur to him that he was creating an alien society and so he didn’t bother with new names. But this is obviously not the case — if he was that naive, he wouldn’t have come up with an alien culture in the first place. His Nephites and Lamanites would have been culturally white Americans or North American Indians, which they definitely are not.
Great Spirit. Speaking of cowboys and Indians, why don’t we see much more of the 1820s view of American Indians? Where is the Happy Hunting Ground? Where is the teepee or wigwam? Where are the moccasins and deerskins, the canoes, the peace pipes? What are we doing with cities instead of villages? Why don’t we have any explanation of the great Indian mounds? In short, where is James Fenimore Cooper?
The only time we get anything that sounds like the 1820s white-man view of North American Indians is when Lamoni and Ammon speak of a Great Spirit. This may simply be the way Joseph Smith translated Lamoni’s word for God, thinking, of course, as he did, of North American Indian beliefs. Thus it could be a matter of word choice. But I’m inclined to believe that it is a fair translation of the concept of God that Lamoni believed in; certainly it is not inconsistent with Meso-American beliefs, where a Great Spirit that was the God above all gods seems to have been an available belief.
Transportation. Nobody rides anywhere. Think about it. I don’t have to explain to you about airplanes when I say I flew here, but I would certainly say that I flew here. People in Joseph Smith’s day rode everywhere they could — either a horse or a wagon. When they took a long journey on foot, they said so, because it was remarkable. But no one in the Book of Mormon rides anywhere. How did Joseph Smith know to keep his made-up Nephites and Lamanites on foot — and how did he keep himself from ever pointing out the fact?
Networks and relationships. Today we use jobs and school for our networks of relationship. In ancient Rome, it was patrons and clients. In the Book of Mormon it was extended kinship groups. We see clear traces of that in Amulek and in the way that the families of the prophets are treated over the years. Lineage is the first relationship you assert. Family is the first guide to a man’s worthiness to rule. Again, this doesn’t match anything that Joseph Smith would be familiar with. Family was important in 1820s America, but not as a guide to identity, not as the system of networking. Instead people knew each other and related to each other through political parties or, sometimes, societies like the Masons. Mostly, though, the fundamental connections were between employee and employer, when the person hiring was of higher status, or between client and professional, where the person being hired had the higher status (as with doctors and lawyers).
So where are those trade relationships in the Book of Mormon? All of Joseph Smith’s youth was spent working for hire for one farmer or another. But the one place in the Book of Mormon where one man goes to work for another as an employee is when Ammon goes to work for King Lamoni, and there is nothing in that relationship that remotely resembles the pattern of hiring for pay that Joseph Smith knew. Lawyers are also paid, but we don’t see them hanging out their shingle and taking all comers. And that’s it, as far as trade is concerned. The pattern of relationships outside the family that Joseph Smith knew best simply isn’t echoed in the Book of Mormon.
In Meso-America, of course, there was no such thing as hiring tradesmen. Everybody did everything. When it was time to work in the fields, all the people of the working class did field work. When it was time to build public works, all the people of the working class built public works. And in the meantime, the rulers supervised them and the priests did their rituals and carried out their studies and observations and wrote their records. When people did specialize — as in engraving on stone or creating artworks — they did so only under royal order, and not as freelancers working for pay. There was no such thing as a middle class, or even a free working class. And this is the culture that best fits the pattern that we see in the Book of Mormon. When the Lamanites come to rule over the people of King Limhi, he does not assign them to any new tasks, but rather takes an oppressive percentage of their crops. Yet he still is able to set taskmasters over them, though he does nothing to reorganize their society. Why? Because their pattern already was to work the fields together, so that they would pursue their normal labors. The only difference was that instead of having their own rulers lead them in the fields, they had Lamanite rulers watching to make sure that they didn’t slack off or steal.
The common people of any Book of Mormon city seem to be able to be assembled at any time. When Alma wants to speak to the poor who are ruled by the Zoramites, he doesn’t have to go house to house, or find them in their various jobs. They already work together; he has only to ask for their attention and address them. Yet Joseph Smith does nothing to point out how different Book of Mormon jobs and trades are from the ones he knew. Why? Because he was translating a document that was written by somebody who didn’t think to point out these patterns for the good reason that he didn’t know there was another way to organize labor. Again, the Book of Mormon acts like a genuine document from the culture it depicts, rather than a story written by someone making up a pseudo-alien culture.
Swooning. Where did Joseph Smith get this business of people swooning to show great feeling? Especially men! That was unthinkable in the 1820s. A man fainting and then lying as if dead for several days? That doesn’t reflect any social patterns in Joseph Smith’s culture. In fact, it’s embarrassing, right? We resist fainting, we don’t celebrate it. And yet Meso-American culture is quite comfortable with people responding to emotional stress with a swoon — especially a religious experience.
Kings and Sub-kings. And what’s this bit about a king having a father — alive — who is also king? That makes perfect sense in Mayan culture, where a son of a king can be a king somewhere else. There are sub-kings all over the place. But the only system of kingship that Joseph Smith knew anything about was the European pattern, and in Europe if you have a son of a king who proclaims himself king, you end up with a civil war. So how did Joseph Smith, if he was creating a hoax, dare to depart so radically from any pattern of kingship that anybody had ever heard of? And in doing so, how did he happen to get it dead right for Meso-American culture?
Why do these elements escape the notice of most critics? Because the text doesn’t emphasize them in any way. You only get them by implication. There are, of course, those who argue that because they’re only found by implication, they’re not there at all, but I think that when you compare them with documents from other alien cultures, we can see that these cultural difference are definitely real. All that’s missing is the stuff that should have been there if Joseph Smith made it up.
Authorial Interests. The Book of Mormon never explain a lot of things that we wish it would. No one ever tells us, for instance, what the people eat and drink. We are told that the rich have fine clothing, but no one describes what they actually wear. While the people seem to work collectively, we are never told exactly what their daily work is. Why? None of that is relevant to the historian, or his purpose. The Book of Mormon never loses track of the rhetorical purpose of the author — but also changes the rhetorical purpose with each author. Nephi and Jacob are not writing for the same reason as Mormon and Moroni, and therefore they include different kinds of information. Nephi glides over battles without detail; Mormon gives us detailed campaigns, but only when telling the story of a heroic captain who is a spiritual as well as a military example. And it’s worth noting that the only captain whose battle strategies are given in detail is the very one that Mormon named his son after. It is arguable that Gidgiddoni’s military achievements are at least equal to Moroni’s — but we get no details of his campaigns.
Thus the Book of Mormon not only reflects the rhetorical purposes of the writers, but also reflects their personal interests and concerns. They should be and are different from each other. Nobody else is as interested in military matters as Mormon, and nobody else writes about them. And, in fact, it is worth pointing out that nowhere else in all of Joseph Smith’s writings do we get the slightest hint of his having an interest in military strategies or achievements. Whoever wrote the Book of Alma cared a great deal about military matters — but nothing in the rest of Joseph Smith’s writings gives us any sense that he cared much about this at all. Even when he founded the Nauvoo Legion and dressed up in uniform, there is no evidence of his plotting military campaigns — yet if he were the author of those accounts of Moroni’s and Helaman’s campaigns, it is unthinkable that he would not have talked and thought about military matters, especially during those times in early Church history when such conversation and thought would have been appropriate. There were others in the Church who reveled in military matters — Samson Avard, for instance. But Joseph Smith was not one of them. To me, that says that he could not have been the author of the Book of Alma. I have read too much not to know that writers repeatedly return to whatever fascinates them. Just as Mormon brings up military matters again and again, though never with the same detail he brings to the campaigns of Moroni, we also find that Nephi and Moroni never bring up military matters with any detail at all. They are not interested and Joseph Smith was not interested, but Mormon was interested and his writings reflect that.
Exposition. When science fiction was just beginning, it was common for writers to stop the action in order to explain the cool new science or technology that they were introducing in the tale. It was not until Robert Heinlein that science fiction writers began to weave their exposition more subtly into the action of the story. The classic example is when, in telling of a character leaving a room, Heinlein wrote, “The door dilated.” No explanation of the nifty technology behind dilating doors — just a simple statement that seems to take the new technology for granted.
This was a great step forward, allowing science fiction writers to introduce a vast amount of novelty into a story without stopping the forward movement of the plot in order to explain it. It required that readers adopt a new way of reading, however. Now, instead of the writer immediately telling the reader everything that was strange in the world of the story, the reader has to hold his sense of reality in abeyance, waiting and watching for each new bit of information that allows him to build up a picture of how the society differs from here and now.
However, this more subtle kind of exposition is only practiced within the field of science fiction. Whenever mainstream writers who are not familiar with science fiction venture into the field — as with Margaret Atwood or Gore Vidal — they have no clue how to handle exposition. They go right back to stopping the action cold to explain things. And this is exactly what we should have expected the writer of the Book of Mormon to do.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that handling exposition the way we science fiction writers do it is not correct, either, in documents that actually arise from the alien culture. It’s easier and smoother to read, but it still points up the strangeness. Heinlein wrote “the door dilated” specifically because he knew his readers would not expect it to dilate, and would recognize it as an item of future techology. But someone in that culture, writing about someone leaving a room, would rarely bother to mention the door at all. “He left” would do the job nicely, because there would be nothing unusual about the door to make it worth pointing it out. And if the writer claimed to be writing a shortened or abridged story, he would hardly waste his time on unnecessary explanations of things that didn’t seem unusual in any way. So even the sophisticated method of science fiction exposition is not appropriate in the Book of Mormon, and in fact is not used.
The remarkable thing in the Book of Mormon is that only once in the whole book does the author stops cold to explain something. Do you remember where that is? It has to do with the monetary system. In the middle of the account of Zeezrom, the lawyer, the action suddenly stops cold. Why? Because the value of money is surely something that would have changed across the 300 or 400 years between Zeezrom and Mormon. That’s a cultural difference Mormon would recognize. And, predictably, like any naive writer, he stops the action in order to explain the unfamiliar facts. But notice how he does it. There is no absolute reference. Apparently one of those words or values in his list still meant something in the fourth century A.D. He didn’t think to tell us exactly what you could buy with a senon, and certainly not in any terms that would mean anything to an 1820s reader, because Mormon must have considered the value of some element in the monetary system to be obvious. So even in the one place where we do get an “expository lump,” it’s handled exactly as a writer from the alien culture would have handled it, and utterly without reference to the 1820s.
Structure. The organization of the books in the Book of Mormon is peculiar in the extreme. Each of the books that Mormon wrote — Mosiah, Alma, Helaman — spends much of its time talking about someone other than the person the book was named for. The Book of Mosiah starts with King Benjamin and then proceeds to tell us mostly about the prophet Alma. Then the Book of Alma turns out not to be about Alma the elder, but rather about Alma the younger — and even at that, the latter half of the book focuses on his son Helaman. But the Book of Helaman is not about Helaman, the son of Alma. Rather it starts out with Heleman’s son, Helaman Junior. And partway through the Book of Helaman, we find that it is now about Helaman’s son Nephi. But when we come to the Book of Third Nephi, it is not about that Nephi at all. Rather it is about his son Nephi.
What an odd pattern, don’t you think? A book named for one man is as much about his son or successor. And when a book seems to be named for that son or successor, it turns out actually to be named for the successor’s successor, who happens to have the same name. This pattern holds true even with the book named for Mormon himself — which was finished by his son, Moroni, who tells us later that he never expected to write a book that had his own name on it. He would have been content to have written the last part of the book named for his father.
I have no idea what this means. I simply point it out because it makes no sense in terms of Joseph Smith’s culture, and it is hard to fathom why an American in the 1820s, whose only scriptural model was the Old and New Testaments, would structure his own work of scripture this way. The Book of Ruth is about Ruth. The Book of Isaiah includes the writings of Isaiah, and not a single story about Jonah or Ezekiel. The gospels are named for their authors, but Mark doesn’t pick up midway through the book of Matthew. Why would Joseph Smith, if he was trying to create a hoax that would be accepted as scripture by 1820s Americans, not simply pick one of the patterns in the Bible and follow it? Why would he come up with such a bizzarre structure?
And then why did he throw in the Jaredites? I’m not even going to bother to explore the enormous complexity of Moroni’s abridgement of Ether’s abridgement of the Jaredite records. Hugh Nibley has a book on it that’s better than anything that I could say. Suffice it to say that if you read The World of the Jaredites, you’ll realize that the book of Ether is rich in a culture that is strikingly different from the rest of the Book of Mormon — and from anything else that Joseph Smith would have any inkling of.
*A Life-Changing Book
If you attempted to produce something like the Book of Mormon today, using the best science fiction writers, fully aware of all that we know about the culture of Meso-America, fully aware of everything that we know about how you create a fake document, it would still be obvious, if not immediately, then within 15 or 20 years. The cultural assumptions behind the book would reveal themselves, showing clearly exactly when the book was really written. But the Book of Mormon has been around a lot longer than that, and believe me, folks, I really do understand a lot about how science fiction is made and I can’t find anywhere that it’s done wrong. Search all you like through that book. I have, and I can’t find a flaw. Yet we should expect to find a consistent pattern of getting it wrong. Not just one example, but thousands of examples within a book that long, but — they are not there.
Now, does this mean that I’ve proved the Book of Mormon true? Obviously not. You can always still suppose that perhaps Joseph Smith or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon was the greatest and luckiest creator of phony documents from made-up alien cultures ever in history. The Book of Mormon only matters because it’s a life-changing book.
The truth, the important truth of the Book of Mormon is only understood with the Spirit through faith. If you don’t believe in the book, it’s not going to change your life. And I mean believe in it in a way far different from believing it’s a genuine artifact. You have to believe in it also as something meant for you as a guide to your life. So, I have very little interest in attempting to prove the book. I haven’t proven it here. The only real proof is when you prove it with your life, living the gospel it teaches and participating in the Church that was established with that book as the mortar holding it all together.
But I do think it is important for us to look at this book, not just as wisdom literature, but also as a genuine artifact from another time. Those of us who already believe it must study this book as the product of a culture, as the product of the minds and hearts of the individual writers. When we do that, we will much better understand what it’s for and what it means.
That’s part of what I’m trying to do in my Homecoming books, examine the Book of Mormon, not as a scholar because I’m not one, but as somebody whose business is making assumptions about the hearts and minds of individual human beings, and telling stories about them that try to be as honest as possible. There are thousands of other ways to approach this book, of obtaining important, useful information from it, and I hope we’ll use those ways, because if we treat it, as many Mormons do, as nothing more than a source of proof texts, we are missing the point and cheating ourselves of most of the value of this great work of scripture.
Joseph Smith didn’t write the Book of Mormon, though he did translate it, so that his voice is present when we read, including the flaws in his language and understanding. Those who wrote the original were also fallible human beings who will reveal their culture and their assumptions just as surely as the writers of I Love Lucy did. But unlike the writers of that TV show, the prophets wrote and translated under the direction of the Lord, out of love for us. It’s well worth finding out who these men were, the culture from which they wrote, how it’s different from ours, and how it’s also very much the same.
Copyright © 1993 Orson Scott Card
Published in A Storyteller in Zion, Essays and Speeches, by Orson Scott Card (Bookcraft, 1993)